Can you remember the first book you ever bought? I can. It's not a title or a choice I'm especially proud of, but it reminds me of the way things were and have been in my life.
When I was a child in the 1950s, ours was not a very bookish household. I remember one shelf of books in the dining room, and some other books on the top of the bureau. There were a couple of single-volume reference books, a large five-volume pictorial encyclopaedia called I See All,
some books which I think Mum had as a girl, including Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales. There were a few that Dad had won as Sunday School prizes: Adventures of a Three-Guinea Watch by Talbot Baines Reed is the only one I can remember the title of. There was E. V. Rieu's Penguin Classics translation of The Iliad. From later years (probably), I remember Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa and Sir Richard Burton's translation of Kama Sutra, a bright yellow paperback. Both of these looked like books I wasn't supposed to read, so I naturally looked inside them and found them too boring to tolerate. What was the parents' interest in them?
But, books of my own? I really can't remember the first book I read or was given as a present. But The Book as a thing, an idea – it compelled me like nothing else. I longed to have, to own, to read.
I think I was 8 that year, when we went on our summer holiday to Greatstone in Kent. Mum and Dad gave me five shillings holiday pocket money, so naturally on the very first day I was in the small village shop, looking how to spend the money that was burning a hole in my pocket, looking at the books on the shelves. The selection was small in the extreme. The book I had to have cost, I think I remember, three shillings and fourpence. That was two-thirds of my allowance for the whole fortnight. My mother was horrified. That five shillings was supposed to buy me sweets, ice creams, buckets and spades, rides on dodgem cars, all the important things I was going to need while on holiday. And I had spent nearly all of it on a book!
And the book? It was, alas, The Boy Next Door, by Enid Blyton.
All I remember of it, the very first book I ever chose and bought with my own money, is that I had finished it by the end of that day. I learned something about disappointment that week, because I didn't read it again and again (it wasn't that good), and the village shop wasn't going to function like a lending library where I could trade in my finished book for another. I probably wouldn't have wanted to anyway: it was my book, my very own, my precious.
Since then I have bought, and owned, many books. Most of them I have wanted and loved more than that one. But, even though I can't remember an iota of the plot – even reading the summary on the Enid Blyton website stirs not the least memory – I will never forget that longing, that agony of choosing and sacrifice, that having and owning. That book.